Our Hands Weave Legacies

At my parents’ home in suburban Michigan, the central area is a large, open “family room.” It has a large couch, a TV, and more than several family photos. There are floor to ceiling windows that look into our backyard and a fireplace to keep warm during the frigid Midwestern winters. The ceiling is tall; the second floor opens up above the family room, leaving space for acoustics that can be both wonderful and annoying, depending on the circumstance.

A majority of the space is taken up by a large, L-shaped, leather couch, which faces a coffee table and behind that, against the opposite wall, a large TV standing on a dark, wood cabinet. On the tall wall that reaches from the wood floor to the white ceiling, there is a burst of color outside of the neutral whites, beiges, and browns. It has pinks and oranges and lots of hues in between, sewn and stitched together by hand in an intricate pattern. This piece of art, and culture, is a traditional Punjabi phulkaari, made by my maternal grandmother.

I remember, in our house in Wisconsin, the phulkaari was hung above my parents’ bed. I would often run into the room to jump on the huge bed, sometimes pausing to look up at the colorful cloth against the white wall. Perhaps because my favorite color has never been pink, or I just didn’t know entirely what it was, I never realized what a unique piece of art we had in our possession.

As I grew up, I began to hear about the fascination with the phulkaari, and how unique it was. The word literally means “flower work,” and this is embodied through its incredibly colorful design and incredibly detailed stitching. The patterns are stitched with silk, usually onto a stiffer cotton-based fabric. They are made up of geometrical designs or patterns, often completely covering the fabric. This is a tradition that was primarily based in the villages of Punjab, allowing women to creatively express their emotions through art and color. However, phulkaaris were mainly made by women for their own use or by other women in their family. So, although it was a cultural art work, it was also familial and community-based.

Not only is the phulkaari a priceless Punjabi cultural relic, it is a piece of my cultural history that ties me to my grandmother. A woman I never had the privilege to meet, as she passed away just a few months before I was born, but a woman with whom—I’m often told—I have many similarities, physical and personality-wise. Each time I trace the neat, clean stitches of the phulkaari, I remember that my grandmother’s hand pieced it together, channeling her own tale into it. A mother of seven, she raised my own mom and my six aunts and uncles, not knowing that almost all of them would leave their small town for the city, and eventually North America. And, with the youngest, my own mother, would come this colorful fabric.

Despite living in some of the least diverse areas of the United States, we were often the only ones from our community, this handwoven phulkaari hung in our home, reminding me of the faraway places that I am connected and rooted to, through my own mother. Although these roots may have been lifted and put down elsewhere, they still reach deep down through the soil, going across the Earth to Punjab. Each time I look at that burst of color against the white wall, I am reminded of how maintaining my own heritage and culture is a small burst, a small revolution, against the forces that tell me to keep it inside.

Across generations and time, across soil and air, my grandmother’s legacy speaks to me through her phulkaari. I wonder if she knew that, one day, her granddaughter would look at it and think of her, a woman who is only a story to her, yet entirely real all the same.

Whenever I touch the Earth Heir scarves, or trace the rattan in the bags, I feel the pulsing of these narratives. Although they are cultures and stories unfamiliar to me, I know other women and men have weaved their own stories into the fabric, hoping to preserve some of their own culture for generations to come. 

This is the beauty of hand weaving, of our hands touching these raw materials and colors. It carries emotions and stories across time and place. Each handcrafted scarf reminds me of my own heritage, and that our histories and narratives are often knitted closer than we know. Perhaps, many years down the line, these artisans’ own grandchildren will touch the patterns, trying to connect to a nostalgic homeland like I do. Perhaps, as I do, they will hear the stories of other times, sense the smells and sounds of other places, and feel that they have found a little piece of their own legacy.

Originally written for Earth Heir

Behind the Scenes at Earth Heir

Last week, I had the great pleasure of going to one of our many artisan studios and meeting Mr. KL Ng, a rattan weaver who makes a few of the Earth Heir products. As soon as we arrived, he graciously welcomed us into his home, which doubles as his work space, and showed us many of the things he was working on. I was awestruck by the intricate details of the benches, chairs, and baskets that surrounded the front door to his house. There were bunches of untouched rattan leaning against one wall while some pieces that had already been thinly carved for weaving laid on top of a shelf.

We followed Mr. KL Ng inside, where his wife was also working on a piece, and he showed us around the variety of baskets he had been making. As we sat down to watch him repair some of the handles before we took them off his hands, I was entranced again. His hands moved quicker than my eyes could even follow and I felt like I was watching a magic trick in fast motion. His fingers nimbly braided the thin rattan and twisted it to his own desire. He checked it with the basket, saw it needed more adjusting, and continued working. All this while holding a conversation and a television set playing in the background. 

Mr. KL Ng and his wife talked about the changes in crafting and artisanship in Kuala Lumpur, sharing that the annual craft fair may be moved to a new location next year. As Mr. KL Ng is disabled from polio, traveling can be a challenge for him. They talked about their uncertainty regarding where they would sell their crafts, and I looked around the room to see stacks of gorgeous bamboo chairs, waiting to be sold and used. I realized that companies like Earth Heir are so important because the average consumer would not know how to find these artisans, leaving little to no hope for their work. At least with social enterprises buying from these artisans, they could hold onto that hope, but there is still much that can be done to improve their access as artisans and the assistance they are receiving from the country for their traditional artwork.

Later in the week, I was able to visit a second set of artisans in the Mah Meri community, women weavers who work together to create a livelihood for themselves and their families. The Mah Meri community has their own set of challenges as an indigenous population who have faced oppression and exclusion on their own land for centuries. Now, they make money by selling traditional crafts, such as beautiful wooden carvings and some woven pieces, such as the ones that Earth Heir purchases from them.

The afternoon I spent with them was an incredible break from the hustle and bustle of the city of Kuala Lumpur. As we drove through green, lush valleys, the number of cars around us started to decrease. I felt a sense of calm as the palm trees rose around us and reached up towards the cloudy, yet blue, sky. Before turning into the Mah Meri Cultural Village, an area that has been opened up for tourists to visit and purchase crafts from the community, I noted a large resort just next door to the land. Another reminder of the stark inequalities that exist for many indigenous communities.

The afternoon was slow and lazy, and full of laughter. I watched the people around me, doing more listening than talking. Dogs and cats of all sizes eased in and out of crossed legs and feet, children played with toys made out of plates and utensils. The smell of food filled the humid air and clung to my nostrils. I chatted with Sasi about how the calmness reminded us of villages in India, where taking things slow is okay.

More than an hour later, we were sorting through colorful bracelets, headbands, bookmarks, pouches, and more, all handwoven by the Mah Meri women. The afternoon light joyfully bounced off the pastels, making them call to me and play off each others’ shades. I listened to Sasi speak in Malay with the artisans. One of my favorite things about traveling is being in environments where I have no verbal skills, it allows me to learn how to read people and understand situations otherwise. The flick of a wrist, a finger circling the air, a laugh or a click of the tongue. When words cease to mean anything, these all mean so much more.

Before I knew it, it was time to go. As we said our goodbyes and slowly walked back to the car, I thought about the community that had welcomed me in for a few hours, fed me, and given me warm smiles. Although this is a group of people who have had their land and their home taken from them, you would not see it in their eyes. They seemed more at peace than anyone else I had met in Malaysia, and I felt this joy through their crafts, as well.

Volunteering with Earth Heir has been an incredible journey of seeing the narratives of so many different people, and understanding the multitude of ways one can be Malaysian. But, also, it’s reminded me of the importance of using our skills to help each other and to live on this Earth together. Through the process of empowerment, we can strengthen our communities and tell more stories, make our values deeper and more meaningful through a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I think Earth Heir works towards this ideal every day, by connecting and weaving narratives the same way the artisans weave their products. Earth Heir is a reminder that we can always do better, whether it is how we treat our neighbors or how we decide to shop and consume. It’s a simple reminder that working together will always result in more.

Originally written for Earth Heir